Saturday, February 24, 2007

The children at my school

Inhambane: If you were here, this is what you'd see:

16 February 2006

Enormous groups of uniformed children appear to be always either wandering to or from school in Inhambane city, since they have three sets of two-hour classes per day. Unlike the shopping district across the water (a boat ride guaranteed to soak), the two main shopping streets seem sleepy. If you poke your head into one of the bigger Portuguese-style cement buildings, the little old Indian man or woman behind the counter will ask what you need of the vast choice of odds and ends crowding the shelves from floor to ceiling. Someday soon I will buy that shiny bicycle that obstructs the entrance, the one with the friction powered light.

Back outside in the blinding sunshine, you impulsively decide to purchase several generous handfuls of roasted cashews for about 50 Metacais, roughly two dollars. You try not to drop the bag as you trip over the knarled root that spills out from a trunk with bubbly bark. Few other people find the delicate leaves and tissue-paper flowers so strikingly beautiful, so nobody can name this wonder. Crossing the road is easy because there are no cars, but the potholes that dot the once-mosaiced sidewalk make you wish that you weren't wearing flipflops. The vast quantities of vibrant yellow and turquoise Mcel advertisements are beginning to make you weary, but not as much as the man trying to catch your attention by hissing like a cat. No thanks, you don't need overpriced wooden sculptures. Next time you won't look.

The dingy, narrow entrance to the market hums with activity. The junk stalls are crammed together near the entrance but as you venture further in the stalls spread out with a variety of fruit, vegetables, seafood, arts and crafts. The bottles of alcohol upon closer inspection are full of hotsauce and honey. The goods don't vary much, but in the interests of spreading your money fairly you purchase your groceries one at a time as you walk around comparing prices and quality. Thrifty shoppers gather their necessities here to avoid paying the mark-up at the entrepreneurial stalls erected along busy stretches of the main roads. Many people spend all day waiting by the roadside to tout their dishbowlful of cashews, swarming the cars that stop. Others nap near the neatly piled fruit displayed on a mat on the ground. People lay the money down regardless. No point disturbing them.

Minibuses zoom by regularly, and though you'd usually prefer to walk the 6km to the school, you don't want to bruise your bananas and instead cram in with the rest. You distribute you bags among the empty laps and assume the hunched-over position over the seated passengers. As the bus takes off with three people leaning out the open door, you grab wildly for a stable arm rest to balance yourself because your enormous bottom is likely to send somebody tumbling to their death. You smile at the doe-eyed child who stares you down, and notice that she inherited her mother's features. Relieved that you don't have a child of you own, you can't help but find it cute the way they doze off mid-stare. Although nobody budges much, the mother manages to extricate herself from the bus after passing the child over to the next lap. The child's still there as the bus continues, and you find it remarkable how well people take care of each other's children. If you could turn your head, you'd try to figure out the child's real parent.

On either side of the road, the grassland stretches for several miles until the estuary where the shellfish are collected at lowtide. The clear sands of the tourist beaches are a short ride away, but unfortunately beyond walking distance. You can't wait to learn how to navigate the labyrinth of trails to the local, swimable beach. The history of the area is etched into the ground, where thousands of walkers stamped the shoulder-high tufts of grass down into soft, sandy streaks that meander from tree to household, from household to tree. Hedged in by a only a few succulents, the women sleeping in the shade on reed mats or clattering pots don't mind the intrusion as people walk through their property. The ducks and chickens don't seem to run away from their fate. Only the kids in packs are bold enough to come out and say hello. When you say "boa tarde, como estão?" they tell you that they don't speak English. How exasperating. Onward you stroll, zig-zagging the many junctions and forks that eventually lead you to your favorite destination, the seafood estuary, after taking the roundabout tour of the pigpens, gravestones, abandoned ruins, schools, churches and wells.

The halfway point from the roadside house to the waterfront feels noticeably cooler. The glassy, rust-tinted creek that bisects the treeless expanse irrigates a massive plot of cassava. Passersby tend to soak themselves on route. Occasionally somebody lathers up with soap or dries out a month's load of laundry. Now you're close. Beyond the final stripe of coconut palms lies the mudflat, where, below the surface of the ankle-deep saltwater, millions of palm-sized snails shuffle along in their barnacle-bedecked spiral shells. The clams don't move, but you still crumple over continually as you gouge your baby-soft feet on the crustaceans as you fight against the suction. How DO those fisherman charge through the water?

Finally the bus stops at the school and you pop out of your daydream to fumble with the change. The enormous coins all look the same. Bags in hand, you walk along the sandy trail by the roadside, and each time a honking vehicle shoots past at 120kph you dodge a little further away just in case the road hog is drunk. You turn into the neighbor's yard where they are building another palm-leaf structure to shelter the new outdoor kitchen, and pause for a minute to say hello and watch the process before walking past to Senor Miguel's barricaded, turquoise house.

The iron gate grinds open loudly, to deter burglars, who you try not to think about. You jiggle the lock on the kitchen door to deposit the groceries and head directly back to the well to pound a liter of water. Your eyes scan the barbed wire and glass on top of the cement wall, and you know that a thief with any common sense only needs to hop the gate on the other side. Oddly enough, the worst obstacle the thief could encounter is the heavy-duty wire clothes-line that hangs low enough to decapitate, a sensation you've only undergone in slow motion. Aside from physical deterrents, you feel safe living among the family and a couple of other teachers. You've heard through the grapevine about the less-than-ideal living situations of other volunteers, and begin to appreciate being locked inside the house.

The well is an excellent gathering place, and new faces appear often. The neighbors send their kids to fill their containers several times a day. The lifting and lowering takes some time, because of the holes in the plastic container attached to the end of the rope, which buys us some time to chat in simple Portuguenglish. You usually keep your water bottle close at hand, and they marvel at how much water you drink, rather than a liquid of the sweeter kind. There's quite an art to tugging the bucket in just the right way to submerge it, but you're improving your hauling time.

As an alternative to the well, which offers slightly murky water, there are two underground cement tanks that catch rain water from the roof. The heavy lid to the opening stays off, so there's a few floaties, but besides that the water looks and tastes crystal clear. As you sip at your second liter, much to your alarm, you watch some grown man drink directly from the bucket that hauls the water up from the clean tank and pray that the germs you're sharing don't turn your stomach. You reason to yourself that if you didn't live here, you wouldn't trust the water, and then remember that you accidentally drank some miscellaneous chilled water at the restaurant downtown. This careless fondness for water makes you wonder how long you'd survive in the remote areas of Africa, the hot areas. Considering your performance at test-level one, you'd probably dehydrate before disembarking the arduous bus-ride.

Another chatty character is the family's maid, who spends all day bustling about washing dishes, scrubbing clothes, sweeping the sand from the house, sweeping the sandy yard and preparing mouthwatering meals. You chat with her under the shade of a breeze-tickled palm as she desiccates a coconut to prepare a common Mozambican dish made from cassava. You watch in disbelief as she discards perfectly good coconut meat, for the Mozambicans developed a discerning taste after the Portuguese planted more coconuts that people know what to do with. After soaking the coconut meat in water with the pounded peanuts, she wrings out the flavor for the sauce and discards the solid matter. You salvage the flesh but it tastes disappointing. Once cooked, the green sauce lies atop a bed of cima, a rice substitute made from corn-flour, made even more delicious by the crimson crab on top. Her cooking easily surpasses the food at the school.

After the night and mosquitoes set in, people fumble in the dark to wash their hands, grab a cup of water and around to eat. People enjoy spending hours chatting outside. As the hours pass by, the familiar Orion leaps off the central star in the skydome to nosedive for the horizon, dragging the luminous gash of the MilkyHighway off its North-South course. You'd better go to sleep so that you can wake up early tomorrow. The students begin their teaching practice this week.


To Those Who Know Me Better Than I Know Myself: (and I don't have all the emails I need...)

Some things don't change. Still I receive complaints that I don't let people know where I'm going or what I'm doing. When we received the lecture about not swimming in rivers, everyone turned to give we the meaningful stare. This quirky character trait of mine bit me in the arse this week. While I spent a glorious hour perfecting my crawl, floating beside fishies, and holding my breath, the rest of the school waited for me to join the teachers at the picnic table for lunch. Dragging my soggy, lobster-pink self out of the water, I hopped blindly over the scorching sand to the inconspicuous hammock at the back. Or so I thought. I actually drew attention away from the memorial of the first president. Urgh.

I also attracted the attention of the concerned town leader who told a teacher to warn that white female against walking along the road to town alone. I supressed my strangled gag reflex and didn't protest, since I don't want anybody else to feel responsible for naïve little me. After all, this is new terrain. But still, of all outrageously unfair expectations, why did they have to curb WALKING? I'm pleased to live in a small, safe, neighborly town. This one-in-a-million chance of a nasty attack threatens me less than the morons who speed along the road. Cringe, cough, splutter, sigh.

"Where's my freedom?" I asked myself moodily. And then I heard the suggestion that I take a friend along. Oh, so it's the solitary aspect that worries people. Fine, let's go. Nobody can follow my schedule because it's too spontaneous. But you never know, it may become a habit of mine to inform people of my whereabouts and demand company. Wouldn't that be nice?

But like my mum says, you can only change about two percent of your personality at a time, if at all. So I haven't transformed into an organized executive yet. The usual problems keep materializing.

Speaking of reoccurences, how odd it is to find myself doing bizarre things that I've previously only dreamed about, such as speaking nonsense with strangers. Next week I start teaching English and Art. I'm ready. I'm really pleased about teaching art because it will visually jazz up the classroom. Funny how it's taken me this long to actually value art as more than a hobby. Ok, it's dinner time.

I'll describe more about this place in a newsy letter later,

Patience, patience!

During one of my day-dreamy moments that Mozambicans try to snap me out of, I was interrupted. "I see that you have much experience," says Gente, "which is why I think it would be good for you to teach art." After a flash of surprise, it officially became so. I am now the art teacher as well as the English teacher. Technically, I'm assisting the current teachers, but in reality I'm planning and executing the classes. Perhaps I could follow their plans, but I want to make my classes more interactive than the typical lectures.

All my previous correspondence with the school discussed English and computer classes, leading evening activities, community activities, and finding fundraising partnerships. Serious topics. As a special preparation, I gathered my plans for classes that lead political discussions or presented basic health information. Art stayed my hobby on the side. Luckily I'd hoped to squeeze in art as an evening activity, and so now I'm glad for the larger slot.

"You're hair's all crazy," jeers my talking mirror, Joao, "you're a teacher now, don't forget." This casual teaching position is made weightier by the label "professora," the special seat at the teacher's table, and the dress-to-impress code. As stifling as it is to wear clothes and shoes in the heat, I'm almost convinced that I'm a genuine teacher. Still each day without doubt a student kindly points out the sand on my hat or a spot on my skin, much to my annoyance.

Everybody wants to learn English, some also want to learn Spanish, French and even German. The landlord asks me for private lessons. The stranger downtown also. I can't stretch myself so thinly, and am relieved to work specifically with teachers. A foreign language here is a ticket to freedom. One English student called Pedro explained to me that nobody here speaks the language of mathematics and science. Perhaps his motivation will power him though advanced English so that he may later study his favourite subjects in English. Since we native English speakers do not understand this hurdle, we should all switch to the easiest language, Spanish. All in favor?

The many different African languages here still mystify me, even though little old ladies tell me it's easy. To start with, I cannot remember the geographical locations that use the different languages. So then I try to focus on Batonga, but there are some clicking sounds that, when I try to copy them, make the next-door girls roll on the ground in hysterics. People laugh easily here, so it's not embarassing.

Try as I may, I find it difficult to maintain calm during moments of miscommunication. How annoying that I can annoy myself so much by knowing so little. Even at the best of times there are barriers to communication with those who speak the same language, such as when when somebody asks your name without following up with another question. Oddly enough, it ought to make life easier when people repeat themselves in Portuguese, but sometimes it's not.

For instance yesterday I chatted with a the grandma of the family I live with. It was Sunday and she obviously felt it important to encourage me to go to church. At first she phrased it along the lines of remembering my family and showing gratitude for the creation my life. This I indentified with. She continued to tell me to tidy my room, do the dishes, and wash my clothes well to understand life. Did I understand? I reiterated what I thought I heard: for me to understand the Mozambican way of life I needed to work hard and show thanks by going to church.

The conversation didn't end there. My small vocabulary only allowed me to hear the general jist of what this woman said. I could only guess at the full meaning behind her other words, no matter how much emphasis she placed on them. She fascinated me by the way she could give me a warm grin one moment and a stern look the next. She baffled me. She repeated herself but still the words sounded the same and I became frustrated that she continued to ask me if I understood. Rather to my surprise she invited me to her house to meet her family and gave me a double-hug when I left. I made a friend where I least expected it, much like the cat situation. The ceaseless mewing of the cats used to annoy me until I noticed the large quantity of mice and bugs they removed from my room. It just goes to show that I need to take deeper breaths.

Looking Around Chamane

Oddly enough, the teachers-in-training built their basketball court next to the neighboring minefield. If the ball escapes out of bounds the games will explode with fun. The dangerous mines aren't left over from. This minefield will eventually move locations, for it is a military training field for rodents to detect mines without triggering them. How bizarre.

Only tough feet run bear on the spiked sand, and so strong arms are necessary to clear the sharp stalks of grass. Clearing the area proposes an infinite task. Armed with a blunt piece of metal resembling a dented machete and a few hoes, one group spends all day in the sun removing grass, rotating turns. When I tried to slash the grass, it took many sweeping swings to break the stubborn clumps of grass. Instead I preferred using the hoe, but apparently still needed a lesson in remove the roots powerfully. Blisters grew on my calluses. Swinging and chatting, but not at the same time, I answered many questions. One man thought I lived in a city called "Repeat," which amused the few people who managed to follow my childish Portuguese. I lauded their strong arms and endurance, especially since the other groups worked in the shade.

Walking around the school's circumference, where hundreds of eucalyptus trees will ward off mosquitoes, Laurent introduced us to the planted patches of pineapple, peanuts, guava and cassava. Our botany lesson continued to reveal the abundant cashew trees and freely dropping mango and grapes. Planted by the Portuguese, the palm trees in the neighborhood of Chamane surround the place with coconuts.

Of course I wanted to visit the neighbors, and so we walked for an hour down the road to Samuel-the-guard's reed house. It may sound like I'm hardly working with so much visiting, and I confess that it's true because I'm simply learning Portuguese. Here the locals speak Batonga as well as Portuguese, but a few miles north the tongue changes. We said hello to the many families we passed on the way to Samuel's place, although he wasn't home. Still, grandpa offered us some freshly roasted cashews, although I still hadn't finished munching greedily on the coconut given to me along the path. "Without a cell phone to call ahead," Laurent explained, "we are to just follow one of the kids." So we quickly we crossed the water-lily swamp, passed several other thatched houses, grabbed some grapes and arrived at an enormous cashew tree that shaded Samuel's other family who leisurely spat out crabs legs to the chickens.

It felt a little silly sitting on the wooden chairs outside, but that's the custom here for guests, for it happened each time we visited another of Samuel's neighbors, even briefly. We chatted over coconut water. I more or less understood when Petrus told us about his life, for he spoke slowly about working as an electrician in South Africa for the past two years before returning to briefly visit his family. Listing the many tasks involved in cultivating the land, he explained how their food and shelter relied upon his work, due to the many necessities that need purchasing. Perhaps now that the school introduced electricity to the area he will find a job closer to home.

I can hardly imagine how much time the average household spends fetching water and wood, for I stay with a wealthy family by the school who just hooked up to electricity. Besides sucking icecubes throughout the day, the kids enjoy letting the TV and the radio compete against each other until 4AM. Such novelty. It seems as if everybody owns a cellphone, although few can afford to make calls. Keeping my mouth shut, I enjoy the latrine, bucket showers and the unfettered night sky. Not that we're roughing it, for we teachers live next to a deep, potable well, and have a maid to cook and launder. These jobs and luxuries develop the rural community, and I wonder how long it will take before this sleepy place become a thriving city. Unlike the beach scene, this development serves the locals not the tourists.

The money milked from the tourists ought to buy chalkboards for the stark neighborhood schools that lie empty, without books or materials. These teachers must impart lessons about science, history and so on using imagination alone. At least the students learn eagerly. Witnessing the students sweep the dirt outside the empty classrooms gave me a new resolve to approach the tourists on the beaches for donations, but perhaps I'm avoiding the more arduous challenge of creating teachable moments out of thin air.

Catching me off guard during a pensive moment, the Mozambicans often ask me why I'm sad. They also tell me to stop thinking, a blunt request rumored to originate from the war. Do I really look miserable when I'm hot and tired, or is it that I'm surrounded by people who constantly smile and laugh?

I'll figure out the photo thing later....

Aclimatizing To The Heat

As I unstuck myself from the bed and peel off my drenched T-shirt, I refused to admit that the heat makes me lazy, for it's the jet-lag that made me sleep so much. Johnny and I have another day left here at the capital before we head six hours North to our school in Inhambane, where I do not expect to enjoy the same shower, refrigerator or other conveniences.

Although the sand sticks to my skin, I'm relieved that it's windy. Por fim esta vento. At last it's windy. When I say simple sentences like this in Portuguese, people tell me that I speak well. Such flattery makes me sympathize with the Japanese and Brazilians back in Massachusetts who struggle to make themselves correctly understood. There's so much more that I wish to say! Yet how surprising that rearranging a limited vocabulary allows me to express anything at all, and how pleasing it is to chat in another language. Yesterday I spoke more Portuguese than the whole time spent studying during the past six months combined.

Walking through the neighborhood along the sandy roads, past the kids riding oversized bicycles or dragging each other around inside a loop of cord, I glimpsed into the gardens and yards to notice the dirt well swept. The shady spot in the center of each dwelling seemed inviting but I pressed on to avoid staring at people.

I stumbled upon the same tree with the fallen green fruits at its base that I noticed a boy nibble on a few moments before. Peeling off the skin revealed a large stone surrounded by tart white flesh, so I pocketed a handful. The following morning I returned to the tree where I met two young women who pointed out the juicy ripe yellow ones. After they asked me about my hat, watch, shirt, necklace, ring, red skin and pimples (none of which I gave them) we strolled together for some way.

At roughly the same place the previous evening, I helped an older woman and her granddaughter push her overloaded wheelbarrow along after she conveniently dumped the contents near enough for me to gallantly offer my assistance, which amused them no end. Avoiding the pot holes, I navigated the wheelbarrow to the place grandma referred to as her "small" garden, which seemed quite large to me, and my hands remained stuck tight after releasing the load. Grandma looked at me intently to explain that her husband had died and that she managed her small garden all alone.

Further away across the busy street a large family worked together industriously mixing dirt cement by the roadside. When I paused to observe, the father jovially beckoned me over to work, and I gladly grabbed the shovel. Father knew of Humana People To People but never imagined a white female could carry a bucket. Inside the yard walls, his older sons made bricks, one of the older daughters cried into her lap, and the younger kids stared at me washing my hands. A robust woman sat in the shade of a tree with her youngest baby, only a few weeks old. As far as I could see she must have mothered a dozen children.

For the rest of the day I watched an artist named Manuel making his batik pictures. The technique he learned in school and now taught his younger brother Amando. While painting wax on the cloth, he explained how the nice house belonged to his eldest brother, that his father had died and that his mother worked on the small family garden in the neighboring province. Besides completing their general education, they both relied on the batiks for an income. Thousands of batiks and other crafts are pushed by hawkers on the city streets, on the beaches, in the restaurants. Not a moment passed that somebody didn't try to sell to us foreigners.

Foreigners look rich and therefore arouse attention. One man who took a fancy to Janine could relate our daily movements back to us, even knowing the location of Johnny's bedroom and for how long he slept! Such close observations made us somewhat uneasy. This attention extends to marriage proposals, for many Mozambicans want a ticket to America or Europe. Even though he fluttered his eyelids, I declined Manuel's invitation to become his benefactor. Instead I plan to give him photos of himself dying batiks so that he may fetch a better price among the anonymous hawkers. In our efforts to spread development, we volunteers cannot afford to keep on giving handouts, but will be constantly asked for loans in this land where even government workers go unpaid for a month or so. Since I receive $150 per month for living expenses, I wonder how will I spend it?

Hi California

I'm in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique and just wanted to let you know that I'm safe and sound. The journey lasted three days, and I could hardly sleep a wink. Now that I'm here I'm sleeping non-stop. So this is jet-lag.

So far the city reminds everybody of all developing countries, Colombia, China, etc. with that odd mix of poorest poor next to modern luxury installments. The Africans manage to fit far too many people into a minibus than even the Chinese could manage. I was the last person in the door, head crunched down onto Janine's shoulder, whose armpit was in Tara's face who sat on the lap of some stranger who enjoyed it a little too much. Then the scalper managed to squeeze in behind my enormous arse and the passenger seat, how he did it I'll never know because I couldn't move to see. The journey was a bargain, though.

Outside the city there's still a ton of greenery on the outskirts which we saw on the ride from South Africa. The soil is terracotta. The people are black. That's the first impression, anyway. I'm definitely on another continent. Incidentally, this morning I saw the sunrise and heard the chirping birds (they tweet in another language) and the boring little brown birds are a startling sky blue here (for variety). Best of all, so far anyway, is that at night Orion is upside-down and below it lies a huge expanse of sky that remains uncharted according to me!

Gosh, it's hot. I'm dripping. I'm waiting to transfer to my project. We went to the beach, like you do. I swam in the warmest, saltiest ocean ever. I sampled real mangoes, bananas, pineapples and a papaya. No green veggies for miles, though. Of course I'm already sunburned, and that's with sunblock and clothes, thank you very much. I blame the stupid Malaria meds, which probably are useless anyway. The mosquitoes ain't so bad yet.

My Portuguese sounds oddly humorous, what with my English accent that can't roll Rrrs.
My teammates are still here adjusting to the time change, but we split tomorrow. Oh-er. Then I'll really rely on my Portuguese.

Well, I don't know what the internet connection will be like after I leave the city. I hear the postal service is worse than useless. So don't expect any postcards, too soon, anyway.

I'll try to keep you posted so that it doesn't seem like I've dissapparated. (I read the whole of Harry Potter 6 while waiting for a bus). Oh, I guess I should mention that I'm surprisingly comfortable at the moment. I suppose I'm more prepared than I first imagined. Still, I'm in the lap of luxury in comparison to most, mainly due to running water.

Right, then.
Over and out.